September 30, 2009

The End

They needed to take three of four games in Detroit to give themselves a reasonable shot at the playoffs going into the final weekend, but instead two poor pitching performances, a ton of small ball-obsessed over-managing from Ron Gardenhire, and an injury-depleted, scrub-filled lineup has all but destroyed the Twins' hopes for a division crown even before the final game of the Tigers series. There's still room for a miracle if things break perfectly for the Twins and horribly for the Tigers, but short of that it's over.

Playing meaningful games during the final week of the season perhaps makes it seem like 2009 was a success for the Twins, but that entire notion is just built around the AL Central once again being bad enough to allow a flawed, mediocre team to stay in the race. Yes, they hung with the similar flawed and mediocre Tigers until almost the very end, but the Twins would have been eliminated from contention weeks ago in any other division in baseball.

With four games remaining they have the seventh-best record in the league and the 15th-best record in baseball, which basically epitomizes mediocrity and seems like a waste of Joe Mauer's amazing year. Last season Bill Smith and company completely failed to address obvious weaknesses and the Twins lost the division by a game. This season the front office waited until the team had dug itself a big hole before making some modest midseason additions and will likely lose the division by 2-3 games.

Injuries to Justin Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Joe Crede obviously played a huge factor in their being an 85-win team rather than a 90-win team, but some semblance of depth would've made those losses much easier to take. Instead the Twins will end up giving 700 plate appearances to Nick Punto and his doppelganger Matt Tolbert, starting Delmon Young's bad bat and worse glove 90 times, and trotting out Rochester-caliber pitchers for a couple hundred innings before calling in some cavalry.

As has been the case for most of this decade, the Twins had the elite, top-end talent to be an excellent team and struggled mightily filling in the rest of the roster with capable role players. So for all the good Mauer, Morneau, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer did at the plate the Twins are just a league-average team offensively, which combined with a tremendously disappointing season from the rotation and a terrible first half by the non-Joe Nathan relievers adds up to ... well, an 85-win team.

Of course, the season was far from a disaster. Mauer stayed healthy after spending all of April on the disabled list and put together one of the greatest seasons of all time by a catcher. Span solidified his standing as one of the team's long-term building blocks and one of the AL's top all-around outfielders. Kubel took a step forward as one of the league's top hitters. Nathan was once again among baseball's most dominant closers and Jose Mijares showed that his September debut last year was no fluke.

Scott Baker rebounded from a homerific April to basically perform just like he did last season to earn a $15 million deal. Cuddyer bounced back nicely from an injury wrecked 2008 and Matt Guerrier shook off any workload-related concerns. Jesse Crain salvaged his season and perhaps his career following a demotion to Triple-A. Jose Morales looks ready to take over for Mike Redmond as Mauer's backup. And after 15 months of ignoring bullpen problems Smith added Jon Rauch for this season and next.

Ultimately, though, I'm left feeling like the Twins wasted an excellent opportunity for the second season in a row because their big moves were disastrous and their small moves were too little or too late. Yes, playing meaningful late-September games in back-to-back seasons beats the alternative that everyone suffered through in 2007, but being good enough to finish a close second in a terrible division is hardly success for a team with the Twins' core. Smith and company need to get their act together this winter.


Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

September 27, 2009

Showdown in Motown


Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind
I knew there was a better way of life and I was just trying to find
You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure
Across 110th Street is a helluva a tester


- Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street"

Not much left to say at this point. The weekend went nicely for the Twins, as they won two out of three in Kansas City, losing only to the top pitcher in the league, and the Tigers lost two out of three in Chicago, winning only when the White Sox coughed up a 5-0 lead. With seven games remaining the Twins trail the Tigers by two games heading into a four-game series in Detroit, which basically means they need to win three of these four matchups to have more than slim playoff odds going into the final weekend:

TONIGHT:
Nick Blackburn 192 IP 4.2 SO/9 1.9 BB/9 45.4 GB% 4.85 xFIP
Rick Porcello 159 IP 4.5 SO/9 2.8 BB/9 54.6 GB% 4.56 xFIP

TUESDAY:
Brian Duensing 78 IP 5.7 SO/9 3.2 BB/9 45.3 GB% 4.97 xFIP
Justin Verlander 224 IP 10.3 SO/9 2.4 BB/9 35.6 GB% 3.40 xFIP

WEDNESDAY:
Carl Pavano 189 IP 6.5 SO/9 1.7 BB/9 44.5 GB% 4.16 xFIP
Eddie Bonine 29 IP 4.9 SO/9 3.1 BB/9 55.8 GB% 4.49 xFIP

THURSDAY:
Scott Baker 189 IP 7.5 SO/9 2.0 BB/9 33.9 GB% 4.34 xFIP
Nate Robertson 44 IP 6.8 SO/9 5.8 BB/9 41.8 GB% 5.40 xFIP

Based on the pitching matchups each team has an edge in two of the games. Detroit has an edge with Justin Verlander, who's one of the five best pitchers in the league, and Rick Porcello, who's one of the five best rookies in the league. Minnesota has an edge against Eddie Bonine, who's 28 years old and making his ninth career start after posting a 4.10 ERA in 62 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, and Nate Robertson, who's 9-13 with a 6.19 ERA since the beginning of last season.

There's certainly a lot more room for analysis, but at this point we're essentially talking about a series of four coin flips, with each one weighted somewhere in the range of 50-50, 55-45, or 60-40. A split is the most likely scenario and would leave the Twins needing to sweep the Royals while the Tigers lose at least two of three to the White Sox during the final weekend. However, a 3-1 series win for the Twins would put them in a relative driver's seat and a 4-0 sweep would all but lock up the division title.

As a wise man once said, "There's one word in America that says it all and that word is youneverknow."


Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

September 24, 2009

Link-O-Rama

  • I'll assume that my invite is in the mail. Oh, and I'd like to sit at Creed Bratton's table, if possible.
  • One of the nice things about working from home is the lack of a communal office refrigerator and the passive-aggressive post-it notes that come with it.
  • Jennifer Garner can recite the Red Sox's starting lineup ... sort of.
  • Last week my MinnPost colleague David Brauer reported that the Minneapolis Star Tribune planned to start charging for certain content online, with Vikings coverage as the guinea pig, and the wheels are now in motion. Access Vikings will cost $20 per year, which is reasonable enough for hardcore fans, although using poorly lit videos featuring Patrick Reusse and Jim Souhan as a selling point is iffy. I'm not going to subscribe, because I don't consume that much Vikings coverage, but many people will.

    If the Star Tribune can get even 5,000 subscribers at $20 per pop, my guess is that the for-pay attempt will be considered a success. That would generate $100,000 in revenue, with most of it profit, which is perhaps enough to pay two reporters' salaries. Looking at the big picture, I'd gladly pay $20 per year if it meant that the Star Tribune could keep both LaVelle E. Neal III and Joe Christensen on the Twins beat, and lots of people probably feel similarly about the newspaper's other niches if the guinea pig survives.

  • Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com fourth runner-up Mila Kunis looked pretty much flawless walking the red carpet at the Emmys.
  • Ricky Gervais did not look flawless at the Emmys, but was hilarious:


    My favorite part is Tom Hanks' reaction at the 80-second mark.
  • In what might be my favorite injury of the season, Mariners closer David Aardsma hurt his back while "scrunched up reading a book" on the team flight to Florida. No word yet on what he was reading, but it presumably wasn't this book.
  • Mariners fans are now free to go strip-clubbing around Safeco Field. Much safer than reading.
  • Now that the hype has worn off, Kimbo Slice is trying to fight his way into the UFC on The Ultimate Fighter and next week's episode has him matched up against former IFL champion Roy Nelson. Slice is a heavy underdog and a loss to Nelson would probably end his 15 minutes of fame.
  • Isaiah Rider's triumphant return to professional basketball is off to an excellent start.
  • Most weeks Rider getting into trouble would be the least-shocking news, but this story has him beat:
    Researchers found that women are overcome by a burning desire to share gossip as soon as they hear it. They will typically spill the beans to at least one other person in 47 hours and 15 minutes. Depending on who the gossip is about, their boyfriend, husband, best friend or mother are most likely to be the initial recipients of the information.

    The study of 3,000 women aged between 18 and 65 also found that four out of ten admitted they were unable to keep a secret – no matter how personal or confidential the news was. It also found that alcohol usually gives us a helping hand to blurt out secrets, with more than half admitting a glass or two of wine could prompt them to dish the dirt.

    I'm exceptionally good at keeping secrets, not because I'm a wonderful person or have superb morals, but because I'm incredibly lazy and often don't have the energy to gossip. And being obese enough that "a glass or two of wine" has zero effect helps too. So next time you have a secret, tell it to a fat guy.

  • Chris Fowler and Jesse Palmer giddily narrating a Clemson fan's mental breakdown following their last-second loss to Georgia Tech is my favorite video of the week:


    Perhaps the best use of a telestrator in college football history.
  • Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com third runner-up Kate Beckinsale is looking great in something called Angeleno magazine, which makes me think that the world may be ready for OFGoAG.com magazine. I'll pitch the project next time I'm at the Beckett Media offices in Dallas and then insist "I'm serious" once they all stop laughing. Can't miss!
  • Friend of AG.com Chris Jaffe wrote a nice article for The Hardball Times breaking down the greatest games in Metrodome history.
  • Whatever you think of the Metrodome it might beat watching games in "a spaceship that just landed."
  • Minnesota Public Radio is collecting Metrodome memories, so if you have a good one click here.
  • I've been posting lots of Twitter updates during Twins and Tigers games, along with a bunch of other random stuff, so if that sounds good to you sign up to follow me.
  • Some of the highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

    - Greinke! Greinke! Greinke! (And all things Zack)
    - Bam Bam Butler piling up big numbers for Royals
    - Kung Fu Panda planning offseason weight loss
    - Tulowitzki leading Rockies' dramatic turnaround
    - Reynolds breaks own strikeout record in midst of excellent season
    - Will the Braves look to trade Escobar this offsseason?
    - Giants want Sanchez back, but not for $8.1 million
    - Who wants to manage the Astros?

  • Finally, in honor of the Star Tribune dipping its toe into the for-pay pool this week's AG.com-approved music video is Solomon Burke and The Blind Boys Of Alabama singing "None Of Us Are Free":


  • Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    September 23, 2009

    152 Down, 10 To Go


    Eighty percent of life is just showing up.


    - Woody Allen

    Today is the final open date on the Twins' schedule and the Tigers play the Indians tonight, so the gap in the AL Central will either be two or three games with 10 games remaining for both teams. Those are pretty long odds for the Twins, although having a four-game series against the Tigers left keeps them from needing a full-blown miracle. Depending on how strong you think the Royals and White Sox are at this point, the Twins' odds of winning the division are right around 20 percent.

    REMAINING SCHEDULES:

    DATE TWINS TIGERS
    9/24 at Indians
    9/25 at Royals at White Sox
    9/26 at Royals at White Sox
    9/27 at Royals at White Sox
    9/28 at Tigers vs Twins
    9/29 at Tigers vs Twins
    9/30 at Tigers vs Twins
    10/1 at Tigers vs Twins
    10/2 vs Royals vs White Sox
    10/3 vs Royals vs White Sox
    10/4 vs Royals vs White Sox

    Counting on the White Sox to win games at this point is asking a lot and the Royals are actually playing well this month at 13-8, so taking at least three of four from the Tigers next week may be a prerequisite for winning the division. As for the increasingly popular notion that making the playoffs would ultimately be pointless for the Twins anyway with Justin Morneau and Joe Crede out for the season ... well, let's put that to rest.

    Don't get me wrong, the Twins weren't a particularly good team before those injuries and they're worse now. Even after their best stretch of the season they're just 79-73, which puts them on an 84-win pace. They have the seventh-best record in the AL and the 15th-best record in baseball. If they were in the AL East, they'd be 17.5 games back. If they were in the AL West, they'd be 11 games back. And they'd also be double-digit games out of first place in any of the NL divisions.

    Their second-best hitter is out for the year and they seem committed to playing a .229/.329/.285 hitter (Nick Punto) at second base, a .222/.299/.285 hitter (Matt Tolbert) at third base, a .271/.308/.375 hitter (Orlando Cabrera) at shortstop, and a .268/.292/.385 hitter (Delmon Young) in left field while their best defensive outfielder rarely plays despite a fly ball-heavy pitching staff and the designated hitter is a third catcher with a .413 slugging percentage at Triple-A (Jose Morales) or a utility man (Brendan Harris).

    They're just 41-49 outside of the lowly AL Central, including a combined 6-17 against the playoff bound Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels, and their 13-8 record so far in September puts them in position to have a winning month for just the second time this year. For the season they've spent twice as many days under .500 as they have over .500 and have been in sole possession of first place for a grand total of two days, both in early April.

    This team isn't really postseason caliber, let alone World Series caliber, but none of that matters much once the playoffs begin. Getting into the playoffs thanks only to an awful division and being a thoroughly mediocre team with tons of flaws and late-season injuries to key players aren't things that necessarily keep teams from having success in the postseason because having success in the postseason is an unpredictable mix of skill and luck played out over the course of at most 19 games.

    Great teams have flopped and mediocre teams have won championships. Teams that headed into the playoffs on amazing hot streaks have been swept out of the first round and teams that have backed into the playoffs have cruised to the World Series. And everything between. The odds are heavily against the Twins making the playoffs, but if they happen to get there everything goes out the window when just 11 wins equal a big shiny trophy. No matter how shaky a team looks, you want a chance to roll those dice.


    Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    September 21, 2009

    Blackburn's Deja Vu

    Nick Blackburn returned to the scene of last season's Game 163 and tossed another gem in Chicago, blanking the White Sox for seven innings as the Twins cut the idle Tigers' division lead to 2.5 games. FSN announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven spent much of the game discussing their perceived differences between Blackburn last year and Blackburn this year, which actually couldn't be further from reality based on his season totals:
    YEAR      W      L      ERA        IP     SO     BB       H     HR      GB%
    2008 11 11 4.05 193.1 96 39 224 23 44.9
    2009 11 11 4.18 191.2 89 40 230 24 45.3

    Blackburn will probably start 2-3 more times, so the final numbers won't be quite as identical, but so far at least you'd be hard-pressed to find two more similar seasons from a pitcher, let alone a sophomore season that looks more like a rookie campaign. The difference, of course, is that few people expected 195 innings of league-average pitching from Blackburn last season, whereas people like Bremer and Blyleven misguidedly assumed that he'd build upon his rookie performance with an even better 2009.

    One of those "few people" driving Blackburn's bandwagon all along is Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel, who ranked him as the Twins' top prospect heading into 2008. I criticized that ranking in this space and ended up making a bet with Manuel that set the over/under on Blackburn's career wins at 70. He's at 22 wins right now and will be 28 years old before next season, so I'm feeling good about the bet, although Blackburn's up-and-down year has produced some amusing e-mail exchanges.

    My point at the time was that Blackburn was already 26 years old and had at most mid-rotation upside, so ranking him No. 1 even in a mediocre system was off base. Manuel's point at the time was that the Twins lacked anything resembling elite, sure-fire prospects and Blackburn was better than people like me thought, so ranking him No. 1 made sense. Two years later I'd say that we were both sort of right. Blackburn hasn't produced like my idea of a No. 1 prospect, but has out-performed my expectations.


    Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

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